There is a rhythm to planting hundreds of flowers in the traffic circle at Chapel Drive.
One person works ahead of the pack, breaking purple scaevola plants free from flats and lining them in neat rows along mulch. Others dig holes, with their gloved hands or a trowel, and drop the plants in, covering the roots with soil in quick precision.
Dig. Drop. Cover. Repeat.
The eight-person Duke horticulture team works against the clock, planting thousands of flowers before visitors flood campus for commencement weekend beginning May 13. They tackle the Chapel Drive corridor first, where the flowery focal points are the traffic circle and the Duke University Road entrance.
“When someone turns into Chapel Drive here, the first thing they’re going to notice are our flower beds,” said Andy Currin, Duke’s assistant superintendent for landscape services. “We’re always their first impression, and that means a lot.”
But the planting doesn’t stop after graduation. In total, 27,000 flowers will be planted across the university and medical campuses for the summer season, a job that wraps up by mid-June and takes about 1,200 staff hours to complete, according to the Duke Facilities Management Department.
The horticulture team plants flowers during May and June and again in October and November. They are pulling up hardy pansies and snapdragons that withstand winter temperatures, spreading new mulch in flowerbeds and constantly watering.
Terrence Williams, a senior grounds equipment operator who has worked for 15 years with the horticulture team, said his job requires a lot of traveling across campus, from East Campus to the Duke Hospital courtyard and the front of Cameron Indoor Stadium. His team also plants at the School of Nursing, Fuqua School of Business, School of Law and other locations.
On a recent afternoon, Williams worked with his crew to plant light-yellow lantana, purple scaevola and elephant ears in the Chapel Drive traffic circle.
“You’re tired when you get off work, and you run inside to the AC,” he said.
For the summer season, the team plants about 27 different types of flowers that don’t require a lot of watering, and they receive the varieties from Campbell Road Nursey in Raleigh. Currin, the assistant superintendent, starts designing the flower beds in the fall and keeps records year to year of his planting designs, making notes about what colors and plants complement each other and what clashes. He gets opinions from Sarah P. Duke Gardens’ director of horticulture and the university landscape architect.
Currin said the main goal of the plantings is to catch the attention of prospective students, incoming freshmen, visitors, and staff and faculty who are on campus every day, with different flower textures, colors and contrasts.
“If you think about it like that, it’s a lot of pressure,” he said.
Currin motions toward the Chapel Drive traffic circle, where water was beginning to soak the new plants. Currin said in a week or two, the plants would grow and fill out in time for graduation, and over the summer, the scaevola would grow over the stone wall to create a waterfall effect.
“This is one place where we tend to get lots of compliments,” he said.